with Jon Sternfeld
Michael K. Williams, who played the proudly gay Baltimore stickup man Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire, died of an overdose—fentanyl-laced heroin—last September, a few months shy of his 55th birthday and a few months before he was due to turn in the manuscript of his memoir, Scenes from My Life.
His death infuses the book, already plenty moving, already plenty searing, with an extra measure of “what might have been” and “Mike, we hardly knew you” poignancy. “Way before I was anything or anyone, I was an addict,” Williams writes with characteristic bluntness in the memoir’s introduction. “That was my identity, what people thought of me, if they thought of me at all.”
Addiction, by turns sneaky and sly and strutting, is a principal character in Scenes from My Life, which charts Williams’s struggle to overcome poverty, neglect, bullying, and abuse; his career as a backup dancer turned Emmy-nominated actor; and his work as an advocate for the marginalized.
Williams grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the grandly named Vanderveer Estates—the same 30 inhospitable acres of high-rise apartment buildings that housed a teenage Barbra Streisand. His father, Booker, who had six children from a previous marriage and would go on to have several more, was barely there during the first decade of Williams’s life and was as good as gone from the family home by the time his son was 12. But it was Booker who brought young Mike along one memorable evening when he had business at a local club. It was magic.
“By the time the song was up on its feet, and pushed to full volume, people had materialized on the dance floor,” Williams writes. “Through the door, a line of popped collars and flared-out pants and dark skin filtered in. Saturday night in human form.”
By contrast, Williams’s Bahamian-born mother, Paula, she of the gimlet eye and terrible swift sword (actually a .22 pistol), was far, far too present. She monitored Williams’s doings from the window of their apartment and administered beatings for any and all infractions. “Mom’s love was harsh like sandpaper,” he writes. Said love also had the suffocating capability of a dry-cleaning bag.
Life outside the walls of the apartment was harsher still. Williams, who alludes to adolescent uncertainty about his sexual identity, a matter the memoir doesn’t resolve, was labeled “Faggot Mike” by his peers in the complex. He was molested at school and at church. A friend bled to death in front of him after being shot.
Music was an escape, weed perhaps more so. It “was a way for me to belong. It had the added benefit of letting me disappear from myself.” Then came crack, followed by rehab and/or tentative sobriety, followed by relapse. And repeat.
Williams writes of the brawl outside a bar—on his 25th birthday, no less—that ended with his face sliced with a razor blade from forehead just about to jawline. He was sure the resulting scar would kill his nascent career as a performer. Actually, it upped his appeal.
Williams began appearing in music videos for, among others, Madonna, George Michael, and Missy Elliott, and was tapped to play Tupac Shakur’s younger brother in the 1996 crime drama Bullet after Pac got a load of his headshot. Half a dozen years later, a casting director who remembered Williams from an unsuccessful audition for Oz put him up for The Wire. Bingo. Later came acclaimed performances in Boardwalk Empire, The Night Of, and Lovecraft County.
But validation and success were only partial succor. Really, they complicated things for a guy who had endured so much trauma and determinedly processed so very little of it. The Wire’s “Omar,” he writes, “became a superhero costume I wore to hide from myself…. And what made all of it so much easier to feel like that was the drugs.”
Queen Latifah figures in Scenes from My Life, as does Barack Obama, who, in an interview during his 2008 campaign for president, called Omar his favorite character. When Williams took part in a voter-registration drive and got called out of the crowd to meet the future leader of the Free World, he had just come off a three-day cocaine binge and was such a mess he could only stutter out an embarrassing “G-G-God bless you, bro.”
“Obama shook my hand, and I could see it in his eyes. He was like, I don’t got time for this.”
Williams acquitted himself far better in his second meeting with Obama, this time at the White House, where he was part of a group discussing social justice and prison reform. The last 70 pages of Scenes from My Life chronicle Williams’s hands-on activism. The account, while a necessary piece of the story, doesn’t have the resonance of what precedes it.
When Williams was 16, his far more sophisticated friend Robin introduced him to the wonders and pleasures of Greenwich Village and its environs. A ritual was established. The two of them and another pal, Darlene, would smoke weed and sniff coke (if available), dance at the Garage, the Door, or Ariel’s until the wee small hours, then walk the streets and contemplate their glorious futures. Finally, they’d huddle in what they called “the Circle” and say, as though in prayer, “To each new day, we’re gonna make a new day.”
At the lowest points of his life, Williams writes, he would flash back to that pact, “of its promise, of the magic inside of it.” Poof goes the magic.
Joanne Kaufman is a New York–based journalist and critic